Last week, PEN America, an organization traditionally dedicated to the protection of literature and free expression, issued a sweeping, 100-page report on speech issues on American campuses.
The report’s main conclusion might be that journalists aren’t careful readers. The headlines on much of the coverage of the report’s release centered on a single passage (emphasis mine):
“PEN America’s view, as of October 2016, is that while the current controversies merit attention and there have been some troubling incidences of speech curtailed, there is not, as some accounts have suggested, a pervasive ‘crisis’ for free speech on campus.”
Many outlets seized upon this line. Some interpreted the report to mean that there was not only no speech crisis on campus, but that the mere suggestion of such was a conservative canard.
The New York Times focused on that latter idea in its headline. “Can Cries of ‘Free Speech’ Be a Weapon? Students Say Yes,” the paper wrote.
Other outlets focused on the “no pervasive crisis” line in a different way.
“New Report Says There’s No Speech Crisis on Campus,” wrote the College Fix, in a piece that was heavily critical of PEN for failing to take a stronger stand. “Report provides an overview of threats to free speech while refusing to label the campus situation a ‘crisis,'” seethed Reason, in a similar article.
But the “no pervasive crisis” line isn’t the whole story. If you read the text, there’s no way to avoid concluding that its authors were in fact very concerned about the future of free speech in this country.
The massive amount of anecdotal detail in the report – covering everything from an incident in which an English professor was sanctioned for asking students to define the word “pornography,” to the extraordinary fact that up to a third of all students are “unaware that free speech is addressed by the First Amendment” – leave the reader without any doubt that PEN was trying to address a serious issue.
“The mere fact that we put out a report of such length suggests that it’s important to raise some alarm bells,” says Suzanne Nossel, one of the report’s authors.
This report’s timing is important, for a perhaps unexpected reason. The aftermath of the Trump campaign will leave us facing some very thorny questions as a nation, particularly in the areas of speech and media freedoms.
Clearly, we’re entering a new era in our national attitudes toward such principles. The issue has gone beyond campuses.
The rise of Trump’s rightist/white supremacist movement in the population at large, coupled with the emergence of a young generation that sometimes sees the term “free speech” as a stalking horse for right-wing politics, may lead to a radical reversal in our posture toward certain once-cherished civil liberties.
Historically, the embrace of free speech has been understood as going hand in hand with progressive politics. In the past, the people who tested the boundaries of free speech protections were almost always countercultural heroes.
From Lenny Bruce to Dick Gregory to Richard Pryor, from Janis Joplin to Tina Turner to Ice Cube to Prince, from J.D. Salinger to Nabokov to Hunter Thompson to James Baldwin, if you were considered oversexualized, profane or a candidate for censorship, you had the automatic approval of most politically active young people.
The culture war from the dawn of the Civil Rights era onward pitted a wave of disillusioned youth against lacquered phonies like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Anita Bryant, who all pledged loyalty to an America that never existed.
Those pols were wedded to a My Three Sons version of America where there was no institutional racism, no prejudice against gays and lesbians, and no corporate or militarist excess.
Their official position was that America was the greatest country on earth, everybody did it in the missionary position, Daddy knew best and Mom wasn’t high on “diet pills” when she was doing the vacuuming. There was no need for sex ed, because of course people didn’t have sex before marriage.
These were all lies, and the way conservatives spent so much energy talking around the obvious truths of our society repulsed young people.
So the young flocked to rock stars who proudly flaunted their sexuality, comedians who explored taboo subjects and authors who wrote in the unvarnished language you actually heard people use when speaking anywhere outside of church.
Humor, music and great literature were understood to be inherently liberating, because they were true. And anything that was forbidden was probably even truer.
All of this is changing now. The new taboo campus bugbear is right-wing politics. Moreover, academia’s new self-proclaimed speech champions aren’t Mario Savio-style intellectuals preaching peace and love, but often meathead jocks and frat dudes walking over their own puke to scrawl obnoxious stuff on walls.
This is part of the conundrum PEN dealt with in its report. Some of the controversies that they looked at involved speech that was clearly protected by the First Amendment, but also harmful to that same principle. Online trolling, for instance, might have the impact of convincing some groups (say, commentators exploring women’s issues) of keeping quiet or avoiding the Internet altogether.
In that case, says Nossel, “It’s protected speech, but it’s also chilling.”
Donald Trump unsurprisingly ends up at the center of this confusing picture. His very name has been so upsetting that students at several universities complained that seeing it written in chalk made them feel unsafe.
The question of whether young people need to be protected from every conceivable unpleasant word or image is questioned in the report. It wonders aloud if restrictive and infantilizing campus speech codes poorly prepare kids for a harsh world.
PEN quoted Nina Burleigh of Newsweek, who wrote that graduates are exiting “petri dishes of extreme political correctness” and “heading out into a world without trigger warnings, safe spaces and free speech zones… Baby seals during the Canadian hunting season may have a better chance of survival.”
This argument is made a lot, but after following the political events of the past year, it’s beginning to feel naive.
The idea that the college experience is poor practice for the brutal real world assumes that the current generation of students about to enter the workplace won’t also seek to remake the professional world in the more regimented image of their campuses.
It also assumes that older voices won’t appropriate campus speech trends and redeploy them for use in the real-world political arena.
We saw some evidence of this in the last election year, when the rise of Trump created an enormous controversy over what information should and should not be presented to a public that may or may not be able to handle bad speech.
Trump’s campaign has variously been proof to some that too much democracy is a bad thing, that journalistic norms may have to be dispensed with, and that whistleblowing (when it helps Trump) is literally the work of the devil.
In language remarkably similar to that used in some of the campus controversies, anti-Trump pundits repeatedly warned that certain kinds of speech during the course of the campaign had been “weaponized,” and therefore rendered illegitimate and unprotected.
We shouldn’t be surprised at the loss of faith in civil liberties. After all, we spent most of the last two decades turning the Constitution into a punch line.
George W. Bush started this ball rolling with his response to 9/11. It seems quaint now to remember that warrantless wiretapping was once forbidden, that private telecommunications companies handing data over to security agencies was once considered treasonous, or that that torture, kidnapping and detention without charge were once considered repulsive, un-American practices.
All of these radical changes, and more, were justified in the last decade in the name of fighting what George Bush described as a “new kind of evil,” terrorism, which required a “crusade” that was going to “take a while.”
The Trump campaign could end up being an Alamo for civil liberties in the same way. Like al-Qaeda, Trump’s campaign has been characterized as a threat extreme enough to justify exceptions to all civil liberties concepts. He is a paradigm-changer, his possible presidency an “extinction-level event,” as Andrew Sullivan put it, against which all conceivable measures have to be contemplated.
Trump is almost certainly going to lose in a few weeks, and lose huge at that. People who believe in free speech as an absolute will see in his defeat a validation of their beliefs. The more we talked about Trump, and the more we let him run his mouth, the less appealing he became. He should be the classic example of bad speech defeated by better speech.
But not everyone will see it that way. Young people in particular will see an unacceptable near-miss that will scare them into being convinced that our highest ideals don’t work on their behalf, and are just a shield for rich bigots. Could we suck any worse at proving to the next generation that we still stand for anything?